The first ever space-to-Earth 'handshake' just took place

Handy for visiting alien dignitaries

An astronaut on the International Space Station has successfully controlled an object on Earth from orbit, enabling the possibility of driving remote-control cars across alien worlds.

The symbolic 'handshake' was performed between astronaut Terry Virts on the ISS and teleroboticist Andre Schiele, 5,000 kilometres away in the Netherlands. Virts moved a joystick in space, and the joystick on Earth replicated those movements exactly with a lag-time of just 0.8 seconds.

"The system worked even though the Space Station was flying over 5000 km away," said André. "It felt as though Terry was extending his arm down from space to shake my hand."

Controlling robots

The goal of the technology is to allow astronauts in orbit to control vehicles on the surface of an alien world. It takes 12 minutes to send commands from Earth to Mars, but this test shows that an astronaut circling the red planet would have far more precise control of a robotic assistant on the surface.

It's hoped too that there might be applications on Earth - allowing robots to carry out tasks more effectively in environments that are highly dangerous for humans, like the bottom of the ocean or in a nuclear reactor. It could also help provide humanitarian aid following natural disasters.

The next step is to do blind tests to figure out of astronauts can "feel" the difference between different substances - important for more advanced robotic tasks in the future. That test should take place in September.